What is the problem/conflict of Whale Talk?

The main conflict in Whale Talk is that people who aren't the "norm" at Cutter High School will be hazed for it. The message is that the people who are different and want to fit in can only do so by caring about themselves.

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The main problem in Whale Talk is the prejudice faced by people who aren't the norm at Cutter High School. This is embodied in T. J.'s attempt to get a letter jacket for every person on the swim team. Since the jackets are something that marks people as "cool" and helps them fit in, T. J. thinks it can embarrass the athletic clique if everyone has one.

Letter jackets are a big deal at Cutter High. They carry a lot of social capital. When a boy who isn't considered cool wears his dead brother's jacket, they bully him for it. It's so important to everyone there that T. J. thinks it can make a difference if he gets them for the swim team. Of course, the high school doesn't have a pool. But T. J. is determined to do what he can to get the jackets for everyone.

Ultimately, of course, jackets don't completely fix anything. What does help is the boys working to accept and care about themselves as they work toward their goal.

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The central problem of the book is the closed-mindedness and discrimination faced by those who are "different" at Cutter High School. 

Tao Jones, the central character of the story, is himself socially on the outskirts at Cutter High because of his mixed-race heritage.  Tao, or TJ as he is called, gathers together an unlikely group of misfits on the school swim team, and determines that together, they will each win a school sports jacket, the coveted symbol of prestige at Cutter High.  Among the team members are Chris Coughlin, who is mentally handicapped, Daniel Hole, the school "geek", Simon DeLong, who is obese and completely unathletic-looking, and Jackie Craig, who never speaks.  Through the unconditional friendship and mutual support the teammates provide for each other, each member is able to overcome challenges both physical and emotional, and emerge better face the prejudices inherent in the high school environment and in society at large.

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